GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Monday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that employers cannot discriminate against or fire employees based on their sexual orientation is being hailed as a major win for the LGBTQ community.
Twenty-five years ago, Byron Center teacher Gerry Crane became the focus of anti-gay sentiments and ultimately driven out of his job after it was discovered he was gay.
It is the kind of thing that advocates hope the Supreme Court decision will help end.
Crane was a graduate of Calvin College and Grand Rapids Baptist College, which later became Cornerstone University. He was, by all accounts, a great teacher, taking over a moribund Byron Center music program in 1993 and turning it into one of the best in the state. He was the subject of glowing reviews by administrators.
“It’s such a difficult case to talk about because it’s just so emotional. He was and excellent teacher and even those who wanted him fired said he was an excellent teacher,” said Christine Yared, an attorney specializing in LGBTQ rights and the author of a book about Crane set to be published in September.
But being a good teacher wasn’t enough after he and his partner were united in a ceremony at Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park in 1995. At the time, same-sex marriage was still illegal.
Then he was outed in the Byron Center community. Somehow, someone got the names of the students in his class and sent them a packet of inflammatory and false information, as well as a video of a gay pride parade.
“After he was outed, the rest of that school year was horrific, the way that he was treated,” Yared said.
Crane was targeted for extra reviews and not allowed to meet one-on-one with students. The school allowed it when parents pulled their kids out of Crane’s class. The school board held four meetings during which people made false claims about gay people. The board ultimately issued a statement.
“They said that simply being homosexual made you an improper role model for students,” Yared said.
The board said it would monitor and investigate Crane.
The church attended by the then-principal of the school, William Skilling, put out a statement saying Crane had “made a choice that imperils the morals of our community.”
Within months, Crane resigned.
In December 1996, the 32-year-old died of a heart attack.
“The coroner concluded that he died of a heart attack and that the stress of the situation likely contributed to his heart attack,” Yared said. “All he ever wanted to do was teach, not become a gay activist.”
News 8 reached out to Skilling and the former superintendent at the time, Philip Swainston — both of whom retired after long careers in public education — but neither was available to comment Tuesday.
Today, a school board would face legal action if it issued a statement like the one issued in 1995, but Yared says the struggle for equity in the workplace is far from over.
“Could it happen again? Absolutely. We still see it happening across the nation,” Yared said.